Sunday, August 9, 2009

Birmingham Box Set: Carla Jean Whitley interviews Simone Felice

The Duke and The King

The Duke and the King. Photo: Dave Herron.

Simone Felice answers the phone laughing. It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday and he’s on the road, in a van filled with band members. “We’re getting out of New York City, which is a good feeling, and heading down South, which is an even better feeling,” he says.

Felice is en route to Chapel Hill, N.C., on tour with The Duke and the King. It’s a new project for Felice, who has already established a reputation for his songwriting and musicality in the Felice Brothers. The Duke and The King’s debut album, Nothing Gold Can Stay, was released Aug. 4 and is the featured CD in this month’s Birmingham magazine.

Felice (the Duke in this Huckleberry Finn allusion) and Robert “Chicken” Burke (the King) will play the Bottletree Café on Saturday, joined by Nowell Haskins (the Deacon) and Simi (The Dame).

Birmingham Box Set: How did this project come to be?

Simone Felice: It was a real sort of natural thing how it all came together. Me and Robert were recording some songs. At that time, in the winter, my long-time girl and I lost our baby in a late miscarriage. It was really sad. It made me rethink everything I’m doing in life and I got inspired to write these new songs. There’s a lot of new songs that are inspired from the healing of that tragedy.

It just came out that we sort of naturally made this record without even thinking about it. My brothers and I are totally supportive of each other, and they came out to the first night of the tour of The Duke and The King and did some songs with us.

We’re rolling down the river and our paths will converge. It’s just a part of that big river of life.

BBS: You know, this album really encompasses those emotions. There are moments of sadness, but hope shines through.

SF: Very great observation. That’s what we hoped it would feel like, a balance of sorrow and joy, which is what life is all about.

It’s universal. Sorrow is universal. Everyone knows that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I think in our life, music has been one of those things that helps us to see that light at the end of the tunnel. Music, lyrics, harmony. Music is a healer, and we would hope that music would be the same thing for people, a healing force for the world.

BBS: Correct me if I’m wrong here—it’s your album, after all. But in listening to Nothing Gold Can Stay, I seem to hear a lot of the sounds of the late ’60s and the ’70s. What were your influences?

SF: We grew up listening to that music. It was all around. The Beatles records, the Stevie Wonder records, the Neil Youngs, the Parliament Funkadelic records and the Joni Mitchell records. That’s what influenced our understanding of music. … We’re lucky enough to live in a time where we can hear that music and be inspired.

BBS: Inevitably, there are comparisons to the Felice Brothers. You’ve stepped to the front on The Duke and the King. What’s that been like for you?

SF: Both roles are an honor for me to be a part of, and have been an honor for me to be part of. With this album, I got to really try my own stuff and the story of my man Robert and me in the winter and sort of dealing with heartache and love and all that comes along with life. It’s a really nice vehicle to be able to tell a more personal story, which I hope would hope to be a universal story too. A lot of work on this new album is autobiographical. It’s a nice change, you know.

We’re working on having a harmony band [with the addition of Nowell Haskins and their friend Simi, both of whom will be at the Birmingham show]. We want to be a vocal band, which to me is my favorite kind of band. … A lot of vocals, trading back and forth and all singing together. It’s my favorite kind of music. With this band I get to explore that in another way.

BBS: What’s ahead for The Duke and the King?

SF: We’re doing a ramble with Levon Helm … which is a big honor. You know Levon Helm from The Band. He has a special show at his house, in his barn, and we got asked to do one in November.

The Duke and the King will continue to tour in the United States, Europe and Australia, but you can catch them Saturday night at Bottletree Café. Tickets are $10 and available by calling 533-6288 or online at Duquette Johnston will open the show, and doors are set to open at 8 p.m.

You’ll also hear Felice’s drumming on “I and Love and You,” the title track on the upcoming album from the Avett Brothers. This winter, he’ll return to the studio with The Duke and the King to record the band’s second album.